One of the great things about speculative fiction is that you get to write about characters who aren’t human. One of the hard things, as a result, can be making readers care about characters who, at least on the surface, aren’t anything like them. To be able to pull that off is something special.
Children of Time starts off with human characters who seem all to relatable. A ship is in orbit around a planet that’s been freshly terraformed. A scientist is making ready to start a bold experiment – seeding the planet with a group of monkeys, followed by a spiffy nanovirus that will help jumpstart and guide their evolution. To “uplift” them, in the David Brin sense of the word.
Needless to say, things don’t go as planned. The experiment is disrupted before it’s really begun by a quasi-Luddite faction that things humanity going to the stars was a mistake. The monkeys burn up over the planet. The nanovirus . . . well, what becomes of the nanovirus is what Children of Time is all about.
You see, just because the monkeys didn’t make it to the planet doesn’t mean other life didn’t. Instead of finding its intended host, the nanovirus finds a species of spiders into which it can insert itself. It does and, for half the ensuing chapters in Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky puts us in the brains of various spiders as their society develops over thousands of years. That society itself is a supreme feat of imagination on Tchaikovsky ‘s part, but what really matters is that you come to care for these non-human beings, creatures that are more likely to conjure nightmares than sympathy.
That’s certainly true for the crew of Gilgamesh, the humans who make up the other half of the chapters. After the experiment at the beginning of the book goes awry humanity itself follows suit. Eventually, the only humans left alive are the crew of Gilgamesh and its “cargo” – hundreds of thousands of people in suspended animation.
It’s no spoiler to say that the humans and spiders have a coming together (two of them, sort of) and while the ultimate confrontation is wonderfully done, the paths they take getting there are equally fascinating. While the spiders slowly develop a technologically advanced society (the things they do with webs), humanity on board Gilgamesh is slowly falling apart. As seen through the eyes of a “classicist,” who gets woken up every so often to observe another crisis, it’s like the entire universe is falling apart at the seams. By the time the end comes the desperation among the humans is palpable.
Along the way, Tchaikovsky uses his characters to explore lots of big issues in a classic sci-fi way – religion, politics, and the like. More than anything, however, it shows how two intelligent groups can nearly destroy each other based mostly on the fact that they don’t have accurate information about the other group. The ending keeps this from being completely depressing, but it is kind of bleak. The day is saved by something the real world doesn’t have, after all.
There’s a lot to unpack in Children of Time. It doesn’t shy away from the fairly bleak state of the human condition, while suggesting that it’s not something specific to humans. And it does offer some hope, for while the source of the ending isn’t real, the effects could be. Either way, this is one of the best books I’ve read in a while (and I don’t see any way to adapt it to film). I was completely blown away. Highest recommendation, of course.